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NOTES ON THE AESTHETICS OF DOOM
By ESTERA MILMAN (1995)
German version published in: NO!, catalog, Berlin 1995
A second non-Pop vein, which specializes in social protest, should also be mentioned, if only to dispel confusion by placing it properly outside Pop Art,,, these Assemblage, or 'Doom' artists are the political satirists that Pop artists are not. They are all that Pop is not, and proclaimed themselves 'anti-Pop' in February 1964. They are anguished, angry, and hot where Pop is cool detached and assured. They omit nothing from their conglomerations of trash, paint, collage and objects, whereas the Pop artists omit almost everything from their direct presentation, and they are essentially pessimistic where Pop is optimistic. Belligerently romantic, as a group they come as close to Neo-Dada as is possible today.Lucy Lippard, "New York Pop," 1966(1)
In his 1963 introduction to the NO!Show, Seymour Krim, editor of The Beats (an anthology of "Beat Generation" prose and poetry) and fellow iconoclast, had offered a deliberately belligerent, insider's definition of the cultural production of the collective. The statement presaged Lippard's inadvertent reference to NOIart as the embodiment of a set of inverted paradigmatic defining terms for Pop.
They use every handy esthetic device (collage with mixed technique, overprints, what Boris Lurie calls a "simultaneity of attack") that will torpedo the eye and rape your soul of cliches. They are a band of rapists in a sense, impatient, unsparing, open-flied and ready for action - "hot" pop artists out for copulation rather than cool ones doing doodles before a mirror.(2)
In 1964, an expurgated (and somewhat misunderstood) excerpt of Krim's statement was cited in Edward T. Kelly's Art Journal article, "Neo-Dada: A Critique of Pop," wherein the author was attempting to reinvest diverse forms of neo-Dada (including the specific sub-set that had come to be associated with the redescribed rubric "Pop Art", with what he perceived to be a culturally ethical intentionality that crossed then recently imposed lines of demarcation among the newly canonized and the soon to be historiographically disempowered.(3)
Although Kelly goes so far as to make brief (and obviously reserved) note of the "Suggestion" that "the Pop Art movement itself was inspired by an attempt to make NO!art a more palatable commodity for a public willing to invest in satiric games,"(4) it could convincingly be argued that the author's primary intention in the article was not simply to serve as Champion for the politically engaged collective. As is evidenced by his repeated critique of statements presented during a December 1962 symposium mounted by the Museum of Modern Art (an event which marked the ascendancy to power of the rubric "pop art")(5), Kelly was very much aware that he was participating in a broader cultural debate and that his opponents were the then dominant conservators of hierarchical value and normative idealistic aesthetics.
The extent to which the institution of art initially felt threatened by neo-Dada's critique of its inherently hierarchical, formalist assumptions is evident through perusal of the transcript for MoMA's "Symposium on Pop Art," as well as through review of numerous articles on the new art that appeared in the contemporary art press. For example, the January 1963 issue of Art International was dominated by a set of articles discussing "The New Realists, Neo-Dada, Le nouveau realisme, Pop Art, The New Vulgarians, Common Object Painting, and Know-nothing genre." Barbara Rose opened "Dada Then and Now," the lead essay in the issue, with the observation that, although no one could possibly believe that World War I era European Dada was still a vital "art style (emphasis mine)," the term had been resurrected in an attempt to describe the production of such disparate contemporary artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Tom Wesselmann, Robert Whitman, Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Wayne Theibaud,(6) Rose continues: "Anti-art, anti-war, anti-materialism, Dada, the art of the politically and socially engaged, apparently has little in common with the cool detached art it is supposedly to have spawned.”(7) Persistently describing neo-Dada in formalist, "pro-art" terms, the author attempts to correct what she describes as "popular misconceptions" that the "new Dada is an art of social protest" and that it is "anti-art."(8) Through its repeated reference to "a cool and detached art," "Dada Then and Now" celebrates the codification of the art establishment's chosen set of defining principles for North American Pop Art. Conversely, through its rejection of a coterminous set of descriptive terms then applied to neo-Dada -- anti-art, anti-war, anti-materialism (in other words, those characteristics prerequisite to an art of social/and or political protest) the essay confirms the initiation of the historical disempowerment of the more overtly radical proponents of what was considered at the time to be a "new humanism," and for which NO!art served as paradigmatic model.
By 1966, Lippard could comfortably close her brief reference to "the old March Gallery group"(9) with the assertion that it is "a febrile dispersiveness about Doom productions (irate manifestos, exhibitions titled ‘The Vulgar Show,' 'the Doom Show,’'The Involvement Show,' The No Show'), which fatally weakens them despite their devotion to admirable causes."(10) Two years earlier, Kelly had proposed that it was the overt violence evidenced in "NO Art" [sic] that had understandably "thus far (impeded the collective's accrual of the) giddy success enjoyed by Pop Art."(11) In his attempt to validate this proposition, the author referenced yet another intentionally combative, in house presentation of the collective's public face.
Writing in the poster-announcement for the 'NO Show,’ Seymour Krim, editorial director of Nugget magazine, cites the essential qualities of NO
I would like to turn for a moment to the opening of an admittedly less "febrile," yet adamantly anti-formalist manifesto authored by Claes Oldenburg two years prior to Krim's NO! proclamation. Oldenburg, it should be noted, would later be counted as the fifth "hard-core Pop artist" listed, "in order of their commitment" (alongside Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, and Rosenquist) in Lippard's 1966 compilation of the "New York five."(13)
I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum ... I am for an art that embroils itself with everyday crap and still comes out on top. I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary. I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and course and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.(14)
Oldenburg's manifesto first appeared in print in the catalogue for Martha Jackson Gallery's 1961 Environments, Situations. Spaces exhibition, during which the artist presented his first version of The Store. At that point in time, North American critics could not help but have aligned his artistic production, alongside that of many of his co-participants in what would soon thereafter come to be called American Pop Art, with "happenings," "new realism," "common object art,' and "the new vulgarians," all of which were coterminous with the hotly debated rubric, "neo-Dada." Within a few short years, however, Oldenburg would make an almost seamless transition from his early "messy" experiments with environments and happenings into the ranks of the purportedly cool and a-political newly codified North American Pop Art canon. Nonetheless, it is important to note that he would intermittently maintain his affiliation with the "underground" long after his position in the mainstream was secure.
Although it is generally assumed that rigid lines of demarcation between those artists who entered the contemporary canon and those whose affiliations remained with the artistic counterculture of the period were clear cut, it is not that simple. For example, in 1967 the aforementioned manifesto was reprinted in Store Days (Documents selected by Oldenburg and Fluxus performer and visual poet, Emmett Williams) and published by Something Else Press Inc. (New York/Villefrance-sur-mer/Frankfurt am Main), a prolific, Fluxus affiliated publication project that served as distribution mechanism for works by an international assembling of artists who were attempting to break down the lines of demarcation among media and between art and life.(15) Although not a central Member of the Fluxus community, Oldenburg was regularly counted among the movement's participants. So too were Allan Kaprow, whom Lippard would describe in 1966 as the father of "Happenings”(16) and Cologne based Wolf Vostell, inventor of Dé-collage. Both Kaprow and Vostell were also counted among the ranks of fellow travellers in NO!art. Vostell would later insist that, in the early sixties, Warhol "ran around New York taking in everything" and subsequently incorporated Fluxus artist Jackson McLow's ideas about me new cinema into his own film production.(17)
Conversely, during a 1963 interview on the topic, "What is Pop Art," Warhol discussed his own image making in terms that can not help but bring NO!art, and in particular Boris Lurie's pin-ups, directly to mind. When asked by G. R. Swenson to discuss his "Death" pictures, Warhol begins by making reference to cherry bombs, bloody crowds, "Death in America," his Electric Chair series, car wrecks, suicide pictures, decapitations and exploded body parts reproduce … the Enquirer, and plane crashes. The artist then continues: My next series will be pornographic pictures. They will look blank; when you turn on the black lights, then you see them big breasts and … If a cop came in, you could just flick out the lights or turn on the regular lights -- how could you say that was pornography? But I'm still practicing with these yet.(18)
Almost a decade after the battle was purportedly over, Emanuel K. Schwartz and Reta Shacknove Schwartz published a somewhat eccentric, yet exceedingly insightful, collaborative essay on "NO-ART" in Leonardo. The psychoanalyst / artist team insisted that (in direct reaction to the McCarthy era) the 1959-64 movement "gave leadership to later cultural developments; such as, unisex; underground films and press; demonstration = confrontation; art of the street and finally, open violence and rebellion in the streets (Paris 1968)."(19) Although the authors make brief reference to formal "resemblances" among NO! and Dada, it is to NO! art that they turn when attempting to discuss what they describe as the "aesthetics of protest,” and it is the NO-artist whom they identify as the paradigmatic "social critic."(20) After citing a number of venerated examples of art-specific critiques and condemnations of society that had entered the art historical canon, the authors posit that "the NO-art group, however, turns the audience off perhaps because these artists 'act out' the action and esthetic distance between observer and the art object is lost,"(21) a proposition that brings to mind Harold Rosenberg's pivotal 1952 anti-formalist essay, "The American Action Painters," wherein the critic insisted that the innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with representation in favor of enactment.(22)
In 1974, Rosenberg authored a brief essay in support of NO!art which opens with reference to Andy Warhol's "innocuous" disaster images and a less than subtle critique of Clement Greenberg, Rosenberg's formalist rival.(23) The author describes the NO!artists as the legitimate heirs of Dada, distinguishes their activities from the "post-dada(production) of Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and other housetrained kittens," and insists that Lurie, Sam Goodman, Stanley Fisher, et al anticipated Documents V by a decade.(24) The essay closes with a set of belligerent indictments directed against the institution of art, and in particular the discipline of art history.(25) Although this statement was presented as an appendix, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the "irate" manifestos that Lucy Lippard had condemned in 1966 as one of NO!art's fatal faults.
1. Will NO! Art be co-opted by art history?
2. Does it seek cooption?
3. Will shit multiples be produced by Marlboro, Pace and Castelli to comInforate this episode of art history?
4. Will a retrospective shit show be sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council for the Arts?
5. If not, is this omission a falsification of art history?
6. What about other artists who have existed but have been omitted from art history?(26)
Curiously enough, in response to imperatives of the post-World War II period (and a decade prior to the consolidation of the "old March Gallery group"), Rosenberg had served as spokesman for the a-politicization of North American Art, as is evidenced in a statement that appeared in the editorial preface for the proto-Abstract Expressionist journal, Possibilities I.
Naturally the deadly political situation exerts enormous pressure. The temptation is to conclude that organized social thinking is "more serious" than the act that sets free in contemporary experience forms which experience has made possible ... Once the political choice has been made, art and literature ought of course to be given up. Whoever genuinely believes he knows how to save humanity from catastrophe has a job before him which is certainly not part time.(27)
By 1974, Rosenberg's agenda may well have shifted as the critic attempted to respond to his then specific context. It remains to be seen how the imperatives of our own present will inform the current historiographic reinvestigation of the aesthetics of Doom.
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About ESTERA MILMAN: Founding Director, Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts (ATCA), 1982 through 2004. Composed of artifacts, performance relics and archival material of the post-World War II avant-garde, ATCA attained an international reputation as both a groundbreaking repository for contemporary artworks and a research program. Funded, in part, by a series of grants from Federal and State agencies, the project successfully generated a host of acclaimed topical workshops, exhibitions, publications and interdisciplinary symposia. Charter Member Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online (CIAO) and Project Leader, CIAO Fund-raising Subcommittee, 1997-2000. Participants in the CIAO consortium included Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts/The University of Iowa, Berkeley Art Museum/The University of California, The Hood Museum of Art/Dartmouth College, the Getty Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Franklin Furnace (New York), the National Gallery of Canada, the Tate Gallery (London), and the Walker Art Center. She curated in 2000/1 the first North American retrospective of early works by the NO!art cooperative of artists active in New York since the early 60s at Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston. ►more